Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Are leading men allergic to rom-coms?

Wilder's 'Sabrina', w/two of H'wood's great leading
men, Bogart and Holden (w/Audrey Hepburn)
I just finished reading the book Conversations with Wilder, Cameron Crowe's one-on-one series of interviews with Billy Wilder from 1999. It's a book I've coveted for many years, and I recently found it in a used bookstore in Brooklyn for only ten bucks! Needless to say, I was pretty thrilled. It's a rare look into the mind of one of the all-time great film directors, reflecting on his career and his life. It's an absolute treasure.

I wanna talk about one section of the book, where they talk about romantic comedies, something Wilder was no stranger to. Crowe puts forth a theory (not his) which postulates that because there are fewer racial and class distinctions these days, it's harder to find obstacles to keep couples separate. Wilder says that people are still essentially the same; it just takes a sharp writer to come up with those obstacles. He goes on to lament the lack of true leading men today like there were in his day. Then there's this exchange:
CC: In my experience, it has often been difficult to talk a leading man into playing pure romantic comedy. It's hard today to find actors who want to say "I love you" on film. They're afraid of looking foolish. They'd rather have a gun. Was it similar in your day? 
BW: It was not that way. (A) We had leading men and leading ladies; we had them by the dozens. (B) We didn't think in terms of "That's a comedy, that's a light picture." It was just a picture, and you made a lot of them. It's very different now, to have something with three thousand car crashes, or actors always looking up at the dinosaur.... The popular pictures are a little heavier, a little more masculine.
Cruise hasn't made a rom-com in over fifteen years,
not since Crowe's 'Jerry Maguire' (w/Renee Zellweger)
I doubt anyone could dispute the inescapable facts that movies are more masculine these days and that there are fewer true stars. But is it really so that actors are avoiding rom-coms for the most part? I suspected that it was, but I still wanted to see for myself.

I took the ten Hollywood actors that could reasonably be considered the biggest and most popular in the business right now - George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler, Will Smith and Denzel Washington - and looked at their movies over the past ten years, 2003-12, to see what percentage of them are rom-coms. I counted feature films only and not shorts or television. Their last rom-com is listed in parentheses, along with the year. Boldface titles are outside the ten-year span:

Clooney           1/16 (Intolerable Cruelty, 2003)
Cruise              0/11 (Jerry Maguire, 1996)
Damon             2/25 (Jersey Girl, 2004)
Depp                1/20 (...And They Lived Happily Ever After, 2004)
DiCaprio          0/9 (Celebrity, 1998)
Hanks               1/13 (Larry Crowne, 2011)
Pitt                     0/14 (The Favor, 1994)
Sandler             3/17 (Just Go With It, 2011)
Smith                 1/9 (Hitch, 2005)
Washington       0/12 (The Preacher's Wife, 1996)

Does anyone even remember seeing Pitt (in glasses,
no less!) in this pre-'Seven' flick 'The Favor'?
A few notable items: in some of these rom-coms, these stars are not pivotal characters. For instance, Damon has what amounts to a cameo appearance in Jersey Girl, while DiCaprio's screen time in Celebrity is just over ten minutes total. Washington's the star in The Preacher's Wife, but he's basically a matchmaker. Sandler is the only pure comedic actor on this list (though Hanks started out in comedy long ago), so he has had more opportunities to do rom-coms than most. I wasn't sure whether or not to count I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, since he's only pretending to be gay in that movie, but apparently he ends up falling for a girl, so I included it as well.

One thing I find remarkable about this list is that many of these stars - Depp, DiCaprio, Pitt - are notable as "heartthrobs," guys that women go ga-ga for - in fact, six of these ten are former People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" winners. I have no doubt that they're aware of their sex appeal, but as far as the movies go, they leave rom-coms to the likes of guys like Paul Rudd or Ryan Reynolds. (They have, however, done romantic dramas, like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or romantic thrillers, like The Tourist.)

Who today could share screen time with a leopard the way Grant does
in 'Bringing  Up Baby' (with Katharine Hepburn)?
I trust Crowe's rationalization for this deficit in rom-coms from the superstars, since he's actually part of Hollywood, but if it's true that they're afraid of looking silly in a rom-com, that's quite unfortunate, especially when one considers the leading men of yesteryear. Cary Grant, for example, is probably the poster boy for male heartthrobs who alternated between screwball rom-coms and serious drama, and perhaps part of the reason why goes back to what Wilder said: genre distinctions were less relevant back then.

From an acting standpoint, I don't doubt that comedy in general is tough, rom-coms more so. It requires a degree of vulnerability and risk that's harder to convincingly pull off than drama (take it from one who has studied acting). Then again, one could say the same thing about action movies, yet that doesn't stop Cruise, Damon, Depp and Smith from headlining action movie franchises.

I suspect no one knows how to write a really good rom-com anymore. Maybe a lack of racial and class distinctions has something to do with that, I dunno, but so many Hollywood rom-coms today look uninspired and derivative when compared to the stuff made by Wilder, or George Cukor or Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges. And if that's the case, one can't blame the superstar actors for not wanting to be in them.

Do you wanna see more rom-coms from Hollywood's leading men?


  1. I'd love to see today's leading men in good romantic comedies -- emphasis on the word good. The writing in films these days tends to be juvenile, perhaps mirroring the clientele for current movies. In contrast, during the classic Hollywood era, films were designed for a general audience of all ages.

    Today, I was watching a film that I thought could be remade today with minimal difficulty: the William Powell-Myrna Loy vehicle "I Love You Again" (1940). Powell plays a small-town Chamber of Commerce booster type who gets hit on the head and reverts to his original self nine years earlier, a shady con man. Loy is his wife, who's ready to divorce the bland man but gradually becomes attracted to the new (old?) Powell, who's secretly out to con the rubes. There are some hilarious physical comedy and clever dialogue -- but do we have actors as adept with those things as Powell and Loy? Tend to doubt it, alas.

    1. A general audience - exactly the point. There's no reason why rom-coms can't appeal to men as well as women if they're written intelligently.

  2. It's evident to me that there's a fine-line being drawn between romance and comedy. Sure, there are still romantic comedies, but they tend to lean in one direction: those that have an ironic twist or those that are so sugary sweet that they overshadow the comedy, which is tepid and immature at best.

    Essentially, rom-coms aim for a specific demographic, which Hollywood is too paranoid about upsetting or aiming beyond. It's unfortunate, as I could watch "Bringing Up Baby" or "Sabrina" with the same level of glee as my wife. Yet, there are so many films that aim for one gender or another. Generally, the films require a compromise where one side is dragged kicking and screaming.

    But there remains room for both...if we look at it from a different viewpoint. For example, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is vulgar and unabashedly male-oriented. It's also smart, funny, and instills a touch of romance and genuineness as displayed between Keener and Carell. Women seem to like the movie. It ends on a happy ending. Hell, it even ends (spoiler) with sex after marriage. How much more innocent could you get?

    Perhaps there is something to what Wilder laments, but maybe it's just a generational thing.

    Great work as usual.

    Chris www.film-matters.net

    1. "Demographics"... now there's a word we could do without.


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